Jackie Robinson: A chance encounter that changed history

IN THE AUTUMN of 1944, 2nd Lieutenant Jack Robinson found himself at Camp Breckinridge, an infantry replacement training depot in the hills of western Kentucky. The war had been rough for Robinson – not on the battlefields of France or a nameless island in the Pacific, but at home in a racial war that inflicted injuries that were not physical but mental.

Before the war, Jackie Robinson was a well-known collegiate athlete. His exploits as a track star at UCLA set numerous records, and his skills on the gridiron made sports pages from coast to coast. If he had been White, Robinson would have had to fight off offers from National Football League teams upon graduation. Instead, he took a position with a government-run athletic program which quickly folded. Looking for employment, Robinson took the most lucrative sports job he could find – playing semi-pro football in Hawaii. After a successful 1941 season, he returned to California. On Sunday, December 7th, 1941, he was contemplating his next move when the Japanese decided it for him.

The 23 year-old Robinson received his draft notice in early 1942. After basic training with a cavalry regiment, he and several other Black soldiers requested a transfer to Officer Candidate School. Robinson’s natural leadership qualities and college education made him ideal officer material, but his skin color worked against him. His transfer was put on the backburner until heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis stepped in to help open the gate, allowing Black soldiers to attend officer’s school. In January 1943, the former college star became 2nd Lieutenant Robinson, U.S. Army.

Robinson was assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion at Ft. Hood, Texas. Known as the “Black Panthers,” the 761st would go on to earn a distinguished combat record serving under General Patton in Europe. For two reasons, Lt. Robinson wasn’t among them.

Rigorous army training had aggravated an ankle injury Robinson had incurred back in 1937. Tests showed the presence of bone chips, and further tests were ordered to determine whether Robinson was fit for combat. One evening in early July 1944, while awaiting the results of the tests, Robinson boarded an integrated Army bus and took a seat near the front. Several stops later, the bus driver told Robinson to move to the back of the bus.

While Jim Crow Laws requiring Blacks to sit in the back of public busses were still in effect in 1944 Texas, this was not the case on U.S. Army bases. Robinson flatly refused.

When the bus reached its final stop, a White woman passenger berated Robinson with, “Well, listen buddy, you ought to know where you should sit on a bus.” The bus driver demanded to see the lieutenant’s military ID card, which Robinson refused to do. Words were exchanged, and the driver reported the incident to the Military Police, who detained Robinson. The driver greatly exaggerated what had occurred, claiming Robinson was making trouble.

Tempers flared, the n-word was thrown around, and a now rightfully angered Robinson was taken into custody by the MPs. At the Military Police headquarters, Robinson was brought before Captain Gerald M. Bear. Capt. Bear reportedly treated Robinson with open hostility, refusing him entry to his office and making him stand in the doorway while a civilian stenographer took down his statement. According to Robinson, she interrupted his statement at times with her own comments such as, “Don’t you know you have no right sitting up there in the white part of the bus.” Robinson challenged his having to be subjected to questioning by a civilian, and when he insisted on making corrections to his statement before signing it, the angered stenographer shot back, “I don’t have to take that sassy kind of talk from you.” The whole evening ended with Capt. Bear calling Robinson “uppity” and the charges being forwarded to base officials.

The charges against Robinson quickly reached the desk of Colonel R. L. Bates, the commander of the 761st. Bates flatly refused to prosecute, he knew the young lieutenant to be an exemplary officer, and that in no way could he be responsible for the charges of insubordination, disturbing the peace, drunkenness, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer.
However, the matter was taken out of Col. Bates’ hands when Robinson was transferred to another battalion. His new commanding officer signed off on court-martial proceedings before the ink was dry on his transfer papers.

The ensuing court-martial was a comic-opera that nonetheless had to proceed as per military regulations. Robinson contacted the NAACP for assistance while news of the court-martial found its way to the Black newspapers and the whole thing threatened to give the army a black eye.

On August 2, 1944, the court-martial convened. Most of the original charges had been dropped, with only two remaining: violation of Article of War No. 63, accusing him of “behaving with disrespect toward Capt. Gerald M. Bear, CMP, his superior officer,” and violation of Article No. 64, “willful disobedience of lawful command of Gerald M. Bear, CMP, his superior.”

Robinson’s former commanding officer and several other officers testified to his character and the army’s own integrated bus regulations demonstrated that he was in the right. In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson recalled, “My lawyer summed up the case beautifully by telling the board that this was not a case involving any violation of the Articles of War, or even of military tradition, but simply a situation in which a few individuals sought to vent their bigotry on a Negro they considered ‘uppity’ because he had the audacity to exercise rights that belonged to him as an American and a soldier.”

Lt. Robinson was acquitted in just over four hours.

Meanwhile, the army medical board found that Robinson’s bum ankle exempted him from combat service, so Robinson decided to ask for a discharge. With his old unit on their way to Europe, his superiors at Ft. Hood transferred him to another black unit, the 372nd Infantry Regiment.
The 372nd had a brilliant battle record in the first World War. The units’ shoulder patch was a red hand on a white disk trimmed in blue and red. This striking insignia was honorarily bestowed on the regiment by the French Army of Africa, which the unit had fought with in 1918. By the time Lt. Robinson caught up with the regiment at Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, it was being used as a feeder unit that trained replacement infantry troops for deployment in Europe.

It was only a temporary assignment. While his discharge wound its way through the glacial Army bureaucracy, Robinson, the former college star athlete, was named the regiment’s athletic director. It was a brilliant stroke of luck that would change history.

ONE AFTERNOON, Robinson happened upon a soldier throwing big league curve balls on one of the camps baseball fields. The soldier was Ted Alexander, a former pitcher with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League. When Robinson told Alexander of his concerns about post-army employment, the pitcher revealed the Monarchs were always hiring good talent. The war had hit Black baseball as hard as the White version, with many of its good players in the service. However, with many Blacks now employed in high paying war industry jobs, baseball was the most popular diversion for their new-found disposable income. The Negro Leagues were experiencing their most profitable period in their history.
The former Monarchs pitcher surely related all this to Robinson, and before the two men parted ways, Alexander had given him Kansas City Monarchs’ co-owner Tom Baird’s contact information.

While it was good to have a lead on a prospective job, it is likely Robinson was apprehensive about contacting the Monarchs. It is well known that Jackie Robinson had lettered in four sports at both Pasadena Junior College and UCLA – but what isn’t common knowledge is that baseball, the sport he would become world-famous in, was by far his weakest.

Back in high school, Robinson had played shortstop and filled in at catcher when needed, almost single-handedly leading his Muir Tech nine to the 1935 Pomona Baseball Invitational Tournament. Besides being the first integrated team invited to play in the prestigious tourney, Robinson’s 11 stolen bases was the best of all players. Robinson and Muir Tech made a repeat trip to Pomona in 1936, where they faced Ted Williams’ Hoover High team in the championship game. Robinson had three hits and a steal of home, but it wasn’t enough as Hoover edged out Muir, 8-7.

Robinson entered Pasadena Junior College in 1937, where he lettered in track, basketball, football, and baseball. Future Brooklyn Dodgers star Duke Snider was a kid in Southern California at the time and recalled his future teammate’s incredible athletic versatility, telling the Los Angeles Times, “Five or six of us kids from Compton watched him play a baseball game, leave [between innings] with his uniform still on, trot over to compete in the broad jump in a track meet and then run back and finish the baseball game as if nothing unusual had happened.”

Playing shortstop and batting leadoff, Robinson’s speed made him a valuable cog in the 1937 PJC Bulldogs machine that won their first 14 games. The following season he led the Bulldogs with a nice .417 average in 24 games in 1938. His speed was again on display, leading the team in stolen bases by averaging just over one swipe per game. He was chosen as the all-Southern California Junior College Shortstop, was voted the SoCal Region MVP and led the Bulldogs to the Western Division title. A win over Eastern Division champs Pomona gave Pasadena the unofficial Southern California title.

But when he moved up to UCLA in 1939, his average plummeted to the miniscule .097. One reason for the more than 300 point drop could have been the far superior competition he was facing. Yet, as miserable as .097 looks, Robinson made up for poor batting by his daring baserunning and good defensive skills. Those two qualities were enough to keep him in the Bruins’ everyday lineup despite hitting far below the Mendoza Line.
And let’s not forget that Robinson had also just finished the basketball season, and while baseball was being played, he would have also been gearing up for UCLA’s track and field team. And then there was his regular academic studies.

But one cannot deny that it was football that Robinson excelled at. In his first season as a Bruin, Robinson teamed up with Woody Strode and Kenny Washington to form the “Gold Dust Trio” backfield that went an undefeated 6-0 with 4 ties. During that 1939 season, Robinson led the NCAA in punt return average and set the university’s record for highest rushing yards per carry in a season, which still stands as of 2023. The Black and White press alike lavished praise on UCLA’s “toe-dancing tornado,” and his number 28 jersey could be seen bounding across movie screens in newsreels shown in theaters across the country.

BUT THAT WAS BEFORE the war and an entirely different sport. Would the Kansas City Monarchs even be interested in him? The Monarchs were one of the top Negro League clubs in the land. They had won four consecutive pennants from 1939 to 1942 and year after year fielded the most talented players in the country. The one thing Robinson had going for him was name recognition. Because of his UCLA fame, the Black press made his court-martial earlier that summer headline news. So, even though he was not known for baseball, it could be certain the Monarchs wouldn’t pass up a chance to give UCLA’s gridiron star a shot. The publicity alone would be worth it for them.

With his honorable discharge on November 28, 1944, Robinson wrote to the Monarchs inquiring about a position. In the meantime, he took a job as athletic director at Sam Huston College in Austin, Texas. When spring of 1945 rolled around, the Monarchs sent Robinson a $400 a month contract and instructed him to report for spring training.

While he quickly learned his skills at shortstop were not up to big league standards, as had been the case at UCLA, Robinson’s speed and athletic agility made up for any shortcomings. Wearing his old football number 28, Jackie Robinson’s baseball career had begun, and soon, all due to that chance encounter on an army ballfield in western Kentucky, baseball and the course of a nation would change forever…

* * *

I first read about this history-changing encounter almost forty years ago in Jules Tygiel’s article “The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson” in the August-September 1984 American Heritage. When I moved back to Kentucky in 2012, the story of history being changed on a remote army camp in Kentucky inspired me to write my first version of this piece.

I subsequently learned more intricate details regarding the specific charges through Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s article on TheRoot.com and the story “Jackie Robinson Refused to Move to the Back of the Bus. Here’s How the Army Reacted.” on History.net by Joseph Connor.

This and my other Kentucky-related stories and illustrations will soon be collected in my yet untitled book about baseball history in the Bluegrass State.

 

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